MSNBC announced Friday night that it was dropping Keth Olbermann, the ouspoken host of the network's top-rated show whose courageous commentaries during the Bush-Cheney years cleared a space for progressive talk on cable TV.
Ten minutes before the close of his show Friday night, the host whose willingness to highlight the high crimes and misdemeanors of George Bush and Dick Cheney electrified liberals during the darkest days of the previous administration, announced: "This will be the last edition of Countdown. I will explain that, next."
After a commercial break, Olbermann seemed to suggest that the decision—announced just four days before President Obama's State of the Union Address, a major moment for cable commentators—had come as a surprise, at least to the host.
"I think the same fantasy popped into the head of everybody in my business who has ever been told what I have been told: this will be the last edition of your show," Olbermann ruminated. "You go to the scene from the movie Network, complete with the pajamas and the raincoat, and go off on a verbal journey of unutterable vision and you insist upon Peter Finch’s gutteral resonance and you will the viewer to go to the window, open it, stick out his head and yell. You know the rest. In the mundane world of television goodbyes, reality is laughably uncooperative."
Quoting his hero, pioneering TV newsman Edward R. Murrow, Olbermann finished with the line: "Good night and good luck."
Olbermann's Countdown program became a favorite with progressives when the former sports commentator emerged as an ardent critic of the Bush-Cheney administration at a point when few critics of the war in Iraq and assaults on civil liberties at home had national media platforms. He remained popular as Democrats came to power in 2008—so much so that candidate Barack Obama sat down for interview with the host.
After Obama became president, Olbermann's program evolved; while he sometimes split with the White House on matters of policy, much of his attention was directed at right-wing critics of the administration (from Glenn Beck to Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin and the Tea Partisans) who Olbermann bluntly dismissed as extremists and "worst persons in the world."
Even as Olbermann helped to brand MSNBC as an liberal alternative to the conservative Fox cable network, the edgy and uncompromising host had wranged with NBC brass—especially in recent months.
In November, Olbermann was briefly suspended after it was learned that he had made contributions to the campaigns of several Democratic political candidates. A national campaign, led by groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, supported the host. After Friday's announcement, PCCC co-founder Adam Green said: "Keith Olbermann did real journalism and spoke truth to power during the Bush years when most reporters fell down on the job. For that, he is a hero to many Americans—including the 300,000 people who signed our BoldProgressives.org petition to put Keith back on the air last November."
Despite that recent controversy, the Friday night announcement came as a surprise.
Here is the e-mail from NBC-Univeral in its entirety:
"STATEMENT REGARDING KEITH OLBERMANN: MSNBC and Keith Olbermann have ended their contract. The last broadcast of 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann' will be this evening. MSNBC thanks Keith for his integral role in MSNBC's success and we wish him well in his future endeavors."
There was no further explanation from the network of the decision.
Olbermann was not available for comment.
But, rest assured, this move will stir plenty of debate. The announcement regarding Olbermann came at the close of a week that saw Federal Communications Commission and the Justice Department's anti-trust division approve the merger of Comcast and NBC. That stirred speculation about a media giant purging a progressive.MSNBC spokesman Jeremy Gaines immediately declared, "Comcast had nothing to do with this decision."
Less than an hour after announcing that Olbermann was out, MSNBC announced evening line-up shifts that kept progressive favorites such as Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz in prime positions.
That said, NBC and MSNBC officials were obviously aware that the Olbermann move would be controversial.
Corporations tend to release the bad news late on Friday afternoon, when most reporters are headed home.
But the really bad news they save for after 8 on Friday night.
The e-mail from MSNBC was sent at 8:02 pm EST.
The second e-mail, which arrived a little before 9 pm EST, read:
MSNBC PRIMETIME PROGRAM CHANGES
'THE LAST WORD WITH LAWRENCE O’DONNELL" MOVES TO 8 PM ET
‘THE ED SHOW’ MOVES TO 10 PM ET
NEW YORK—January 21, 2011—Starting Monday, January 24, "The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell" will move to 8 p.m. ET/PT and "The Ed Show," hosted by Ed Schultz, will move to 10 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC. The announcement was made today by Phil Griffin, President of MSNBC. "The Rachel Maddow Show" will continue to air live at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
Since its debut in October 2010 at 10 p.m.ET, "The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell" has been a strong addition to the MSNBC primetime line-up. In the forth quarter of 2010, the show’s first full quarter on the air, "The Last Word" ranked #2 among A25-54 and total viewers beating CNN’s "Anderson Cooper 360" in all key demos and had MSNBC’s strongest A25-54 performance in the 10 p.m. time period since the first quarter of 2009.
"The Ed Show" launched in April 2009 at 6 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 2010 marked the best total viewer performance in the 6 p.m. ET hour ever for MSNBC, with "The Ed Show" ranked #2 in both A25–54 and total viewers for the full year."The Ed Show" averaged 643,000 viewers in 2010 and 158,000 among viewers 25–54, while CNN’s "Situation Room" averaged 542,000 total viewers and 149,000 in the 25–54 demographic. Ed was up 8% in A25–54 and up 20% in total viewers, while CNN has dropped -28% in A25-54 and -29% in total viewers.
Also starting Monday, Cenk Uygur, MSNBC contributor and host of the popular web show "The Young Turks," will be filling in as host of the 6 p.m ET hour."
That's a line-up that will appeal to progressives, says Adam Green. Yet, the PCCC co-founder adds, it would be better with Olbermann in the mix.
"The newly announced line up, including the addition of Cenk Uygur, consists of people who will undoubtedly continue Keith Olbermann's legacy of holding power to account," says Green. "But there's a gnawing feeling among many MSNBC viewers that Keith blazed the trail for these other good hosts, Keith wasn't ready to leave yet, and an important leader is now being sidelined involuntarily."